So I recently had the experience of watching a Marvel movie with someone who hasn’t seen any of the other Marvel movies. And the most experience they had with Marvel movies, in general, is the Spider-man movies. The first three. With the emo Spider-man.
Let’s just sum it up as “they struggled to follow the movie.”
It’s a really strange scenario for me, not just because Marvel is so pervasive right now that I kind of expect everyone to at least have a cursory familiarity with the MCU. I just…don’t hang out with people that don’t have at least a cursory familiarity with the MCU. That’s not saying those of you who haven’t seen any of these movies aren’t bad people, it’s just not likely that we have a lot in common because, well, I’m very geeky and this is like the pop culture face of geekdom right now and if you can’t handle the most popular stuff of geekdom then you’re probably not going to know anything that I actually watch or read or spend time with.
I mean, there’s a chance! She’d seen Jane the Virgin. I watch Jane the Virgin. We also both grew up near Amish country. But that’s literally where our commonalities ended. Though she was curious, which was encouraging. And her curiosity did get me thinking about the MCU a bit more critically – which of the movies are easiest for someone who has no familiarity?
This list is not going to be a watch order or a ranking of quality, just which movies I think are easiest to watch with someone who just doesn’t know anything about Marvel. There will, however, be spoilers for all the Marvel movies. Nothing too big for the most part, so if you’ve somehow still not seen Infinity War don’t worry. Just know I have to talk about the movies to explain why I ranked them the way I did so
Now, without further ado,
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ranked by Accessibility
19. Avengers: Infinity War
It can’t be any surprise that Infinity War is at the very bottom of this list. You literally need all the other movies to fully understand everything. It was literally built to be the ultimate tie-in that pulled everyone together – and the reward for all the viewers who’ve stuck with them these last ten years. They were only missing two characters being there physically, and they were both given a reason in-movie as to why they weren’t available for this one. And even that reason that harkened back to a previous movie.
About the only thing this movie doesn’t directly require is knowledge of S.H.E.I.L.D. (Until the end credits, but since those come at the end I’m not going to count them towards overall understandability for the movie.) I can also give it credit for finally being the movie that gave a solid explanation of the infinity stones. Seriously, they were introduced in phase 1 but before this the best explanation I can think of was provided in Guardians of the Galaxy. And that one isn’t even particularly good. So, hey, at least they finally explained them in the movie where they’re one of the title characters. So while this movie is highly recommended, especially since it’s supposed to change everything from now on, it is not a good ‘just grabbing a superhero movie for the first time’ choice. Not even close.
18. Captain America: Civil War
So, it says Captain America in the title, but they really should’ve just named this one Avengers: Civil War. While it is missing Thor and Hulk (they get their moment in Ragnarok), everyone else is present. And also technically the Avengers don’t really exist after this movie ends. There’s like…two people left on the team at the end. Still, this is also a culmination of all the development of the on-going characters that are in this movie up to the point of this movie’s release. Some of them didn’t have much before, like Wanda and Vision who had only appeared in Age of Ultron at this point, but this still builds upon where we left them (and if you missed Ultron then you missed both of them completely and if you missed them then you’re going to be lost for a whole actual subplot of this movie). Almost all of this movie will require prior knowledge of pretty much everything that came before, except Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor’s stand-alone movies.
17. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
You’ve probably noticed a pattern at this point. Group movies rank low. I probably don’t have to repeat myself, but this requires most of the movies that came before it. What’s unique about this movie, however, is that even people who are well familiar with the MCU up to this point may need to do some outside reading because it just pops in story-in-progress and barely explains itself. Sure, they mention that they’re mopping up the aftermath of the fall of S.H.E.I.L.D., but even I couldn’t follow the first ten minutes of the movie the first time I saw it. Though that’s more of a pacing and clarity issue than a familiarity issue.
From phase two, the only requirements for this one would be Captain America; The Winter Soldier (since this is dealing with the fallout from that movie) and Iron Man 3, though Iron Man 3 might not be 100% necessary, especially since they’ve already developed that Tony makes huge strides with his suit between every movie so the changes he makes here are just par for the course. This gets ranked lower, however, because you need Avengers, and for Avengers you’ll need the important movies that came before it. So while this is accessible if you’ve seen all of phase 1, you need to get through phase 1 first.
16. Thor: Ragnarok
I originally ranked this one fairly high when thinking about it as just a Thor movie, since you really only need Thor’s movies and maybe Avengers but Avengers isn’t absolutely required as long as you just know ‘Loki likes power’ because there aren’t really references to the first Avengers movie in it. But then I remembered that Hulk is half of this movie, and in regards to him you’ll need Avengers: Age of Ultron because they keep calling back to that movie. Doctor Strange also makes an appearance, though he isn’t an absolute necessity to understanding the movie. Thor doesn’t know him, so there is a bit of explaining on Thor’s part as far as visiting the sanctum is concerned. If you just accept ‘comic book movie’ that explains his powers as well as you’ll need in this particular movie’s context.
I rank it higher than Ultron despite technically needing more movies than Ultron because it’s easier to just watch and enjoy this movie without fully knowing everything. Even what you need to know from Ultron is partially addressed later in the movie. They set out to make a fun 80s inspired superhero film and that focus makes it much more accessible.
15. Spider-man: Homecoming
I really wanted to rank this one higher, but, in every version of this list, it just keeps shifting its way to the bottom. Even though Spider-man is one of the most iconic heroes (out of all heroes, the three most laypeople know are Batman, Superman, and Spider-man) and it baffles me how someone might not be at least familiar with him, this movie is filled to the brim with callbacks to past movies. Iron Man is in it (along with all of his feelings and anxieties that have developed over the films) and the entire crux of the antagonist is based entirely in the aftermath of the first Avengers film. So, despite Peter giving us a quick summary of his role in Civil War (and magically not having a bruise on his face despite totally being bruised up at the end of Civil War), you’d probably still need the rest of Civil War to fully appreciate Iron Man here. Just seeing Iron Man or even Iron Man 2 won’t cut it because Tony has been changed so much since then (and all of his appearances change him greatly). Even if you don’t care that much about Iron Man, it does enrich their relationship to know why he’s so hard on Peter. He’s not just picking on a rookie, he’s frustrated with his own failings and wants a better future and Peter is the future of superheroes so Peter has to be better.
In regards to the villain of the movie, I suppose you could get by just assuming ‘it’s the MCU, of course there were aliens in New York at some point, and of course someone had to clean that up.’
14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The only absolute must-see for this movie is Captain America: The First Avenger, but S.H.E.I.L.D. is the main plot point in this movie so you’ll also have to be very familiar with them, which may actually require some outside reading (or viewing, since there’s the TV show) because the other movies don’t actually explain S.H.E.I.L.D. that well.
13. The Avengers
Technically, you need all of Phase 1. That is Iron Man, Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. All the main players are introduced between these movies, including Black Widow (Iron Man 2) and Hawkeye (Thor), even though they some didn’t get their own movies. S.H.E.I.L.D. also plays an important role here, but they also do more to explain it here than they had previously. You might absolutely need the Iron Man movies if you don’t know who Nick Fury and Agent Coulson are and why they’re important. The main villain is from Thor, though most of what you need to know about that is explained in Avengers (Loki is Thor’s little brother and he craves power). The Tesseract from Captain America is important in this movie, but it wasn’t explained in Captain America any better than it’s explained here. It opens portals. That’s all we need to know. They also explain everything that you need to know about it in regards to Cap’s movie – it went into the sea and Howard Stark later fished it back up. As for Hulk, sure it’ll tell you Bruce Banner’s background but this is the most skippable, especially because they exposit his story in the first act of the movie. It’s almost like they expected everyone to forget that his movie ever happened.
Basically, phase one is most useful for getting to know all the key players and their powers so that when they suit up and assemble here you don’t need to learn what their abilities are. We’re already familiar.
12. Iron man 3
You need Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Avengers. This movie is all about Tony and his PTSD after those movies, and if you’re only in this franchise for Iron Man then you wouldn’t even need to watch any of the other phase one movies since Avengers was really good at expositing information. But you can’t skip any of Tony’s movies because this movie digs into his psyche. Though, that can pretty much sum up any movie that includes Iron Man. Of all the Avengers, he’s gotten the most light shone on his mental well-being.
11. Thor: Darkworld
You’ll need Thor and Avengers, and, as stated before, for Avengers you’ll need at least Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. If you’re just watching for Thor and Loki and take everything else point blank as is who cares, you could probably get by with just Thor and Avengers, but you’ll definitely need Avengers since Loki was the main villain in that movie and this one takes place after that.
10. Iron Man 2
So, this movie came out before Captain America: Civil War, but I think this movie is better viewed after viewing that movie. Tony’s dad is an important part of this movie, even though he doesn’t get a lot of attention throughout the MCU (though he is a main character of Agent Carter if you want more Howard Stark shenanigans). Technically you don’t need that, technically you only need Iron Man for this movie. That’s why this movie came first after all. But I think it enriches the experience greatly. Plus, there are several Captain America references. Those were supposed to be Easter Eggs, but, for someone with no familiarity, these particular eggs are kind of…distracting.
Also, S.H.E.I.L.D. is of importance here, but it’s not explained any better than it was in the first film even though it has a more prominent role. S.H.E.I.L.D., in general, isn’t explained well by the movies, and it’s one of those things that you need to know and someone that doesn’t know might find off-putting because you’re just supposed to know but they don’t know. So, as with all S.H.E.I.L.D. appearances, outside research may be necessary for someone with zero knowledge of Marvel. I promise I’m not hating on S.H.E.I.L.D., but it just was not explained in the movies despite how important it is.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2
You only need the first one for this since these guys are very separate from the rest of the MCU (until Infinity War). In fact, in some ways, this one is almost more accessible than their first outing. There are no infinity stones to worry about and the only prior knowledge you really absolutely need is that Star Lord’s mom died when he was a kid and a blue alien ‘kidnapped’ him. Oh, don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler for the first movie. That’s literally the first five minutes. Plus, this movie addresses it.
(Oh and for people wondering where the hell the Avengers were when Ego was doing his thing – they aren’t magic, they can’t just poof over to wherever that was. It has to be reported and they have to travel there and the actual attack didn’t last that long, guys. By the time they got there, they’d only be working clean up. Though I can see this being something that governments the world over start studying because, well, even now they don’t have an answer as to why the planet suddenly started killing them.)
So Ant-Man is almost a total stand alone – as in you could almost watch it without any other MCU films or even outside research. Yet, as with many, you do require knowledge of S.H.E.I.L.D., Hydra, and knowing who Howard Stark is will certainly help you out. Avengers is mentioned, but they’re literally only named dropped (and a base is visited) so as long as you know they’re a group of superheroes that exist in this universe you are good on that front. Falcon, from the Captain America movies, is also at an Avengers base they visit during the movie, though you could also easily explain him. He’s a superhero guarding a superhero base. You don’t learn anything special about him or his past or his character. The thing with all of these points in general, though, is that they’re almost exclusively single scenes or quick references that flash by in a moment and not catching them won’t really affect the overall movie, though the bad guys are very ‘heil Hydra’ so that might be confusing if you don’t know what Hydra is.
7. Iron Man
Why is the first movie in the modern MCU not number 1? S.H.E.I.L.D., mostly. I’ve already explained how the movies handled this organization. However, it’s not particularly important to the plot. Mostly it’s a joke, as Agent Coulson keeps trying to set up a meeting with Tony. This all comes to a cumulation at the end of the film, and since this is the first of the MCU movies it wouldn’t be a bad thing to assume they’ll explain the organization better later on. They don’t, but someone who doesn’t know that could assume they will.
Besides that, there are other movies that are just easier to jump into.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger
I debated putting this at number one since it’s set before any of the other movies and therefore it can’t make any references to the other movies, but it does end in modern times with no explanation about the people who found him. There’s also a not at all explained Tesseract in it. Both of these issues can be glossed over, however, if you just assume that S.H.E.I.L.D. is some government organization and the Tesseract is just some Nazi weapon. Cap certainly makes those assumptions until he learns differently in later movies. Still, since we’re down to the nitpickier movies, those details are enough to drop this a little.
They mention Iron Man in this movie, so if you haven’t seen Iron Man or even heard of Iron Man, that might be a bit weird. Also, Agent Coulson, who was introduced in the Iron Man movies and plays a bigger role later on, pops up here. Other than that, everything else in this movie can just be taken as is. You could even just assume that Agent Coulson is part of the government sticking its nose in something. Which, technically he is. There may be things that are confusing in general because they just didn’t explain it that well, but watching other movies won’t help in that regard.
4. Black Panther
So, this movie came after Civil War and is about a hero that was introduced in Civil War and starts with a villain that was first introduced in Age of Ultron and Wakanda’s vibranium has been popping up already in the MCU. And none of that really matters for the watching of this film. I had totally forgotten about Klaue being in Ultron (his role in Ultron is minuscule anyway), and while this movie is consistent with his appearance there, it also explains all you need to know. He stole vibranium.
Civil War’s information is also sufficiently recapped with a flashback and T’Challa’s, well, everything. As a bonus, there’s no infinity stones or other heroes you’ll need to know about and S.H.E.I.L.D. has no importance. There’s one American government agent, but he explains himself and his purpose just fine. The main reason that this isn’t ranked higher is because other MCU movies could enrich the experience, but not seeing them first certainly won’t hinder it.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1
In terms of the overall MCU up to the point this movie came out, this movie is completely detached from the rest of the MCU. The Gaurdians don’t even interact with any characters from Earth until Infinity War. If you were doing a watch of ‘must see’ movies, this would definitely be on it because a lot of points start taking shape in this movie. Sure, the Infinity Stones and Thanos were introduced earlier, but…it was in passing, and not explained. Because the characters on Earth don’t know about that stuff. This movie actually actively deals with an Infinity Stone, attempts to explain them, and it gives us Thanos’ daughters which in turn lets us know more about Thanos. But this isn’t a list of absolute must sees, it’s a list of ‘who’s the most accessible MCU hero(es).’ And these guys are definitely highly accessible. Plus, lots of fun. I doesn’t quite make it to number one because some outside research may be required, depending on how take-it-at-face-value the person you’re watching it with is.
2. The Incredible Hulk, 2008
Did you know there was a Hulk movie that’s actually considered to be part of the MCU? I remember rolling my eyes when I heard they were releasing one and not going to see it because literally there had just been a Hulk movie a few years earlier. It made no sense to me. And I also forgot about it entirely until I was looking up a list of all MCU movies to make sure I didn’t miss anyone for this list. I first saw this movie this year. And…well, it’s skippable. There isn’t a single thing about this movie that is needed to see later movies. But that also works to its advantage on this list because it also doesn’t really require any other knowledge to watch. We don’t get Hulk’s origin in the movie proper, but the opening credits show us the whole thing.
There is a passing one-line reference to S.H.E.I.L.D., which has no bearing on the film, and Iron Man pops up at the end, but he also has no bearing on the plot. His presence was just to establish that they were making a fully fleshed out cinematic universe. Ah how times have changed.
And, lastly, if you’ve been ticking off movies so far you’ve probably figured out my pick already but it feels important to set it apart because it’s my number one and number ones are always special, right? So, here’s my number one:
1. Doctor Strange
Yes, this is a phase three movie. Yes, there is an Infinity Stone in this movie. Neither of those points matter. Sure, they call the Eye an Infinity Stone…at the end, after the entire story has passed, and by that point it just seems like teasing for another movie (and, technically, it is). Aside from one namedrop of the Avengers, this movie is entirely separate from the rest of the MCU. They don’t even mention S.H.E.I.L.D.! Granted, that’s probably because S.H.E.I.L.D. had just fallen to pieces and wasn’t a power anymore, but that’s kind of a big deal since S.H.E.I.L.D. dropped a lot of other movies to lower spots on the list. This movie establishes and explains all it’s details as much as you need it to, as long as you don’t start asking where their powers come from. It’s magic, guys. Science-y magic. It probably comes from within or something.
As for our next upcoming movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp, well, it’s factoring in Civil War so already that means it’s probably going to rank in the bottom half. But, hey, maybe it’ll explain his role as well as Black Panther handled T’Challa’s. He wasn’t exactly a big part of the film after all. Still, I’ve also heard that this is going to be important for the next Avengers movie in 2019, and I’m not sure how it can do that without at least addressing Infinity War, which could drop it really far down the list.
I mostly just can’t wait to see Evangeline Lilly as the Wasp. And, really, to see her mom either, since we know she’s coming in. I hope they give her more respect than certain cartoons did. Seriously, I swear, Wasp was just the damsel of uselessness in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.